A dictator is a political leader who possesses absolute power. A state which is ruled by a dictator is called a dictatorship. The word originated as the title of a magistrate in the Roman Republic appointed by the Senate to rule the republic in times of emergency (see Roman dictator and justitium).
Like the term "tyrant" (which was originally a respectable Ancient Greek title), and to a lesser degree "autocrat", "dictator" came to be used almost exclusively as a non-titular term for oppressive, even abusive rule, yet it had rare modern titular use.
In modern usage, the term "dictator" is generally used to describe a leader who holds and/or abuses an extraordinary amount of personal power. Dictatorships are often characterised by some of the following traits: suspension of elections and civil liberties; proclamation of a state of emergency; rule by decree; repression of political opponents without abiding by the rule of law procedures; these include one-party state, and cult of personality.
The term "dictator" is comparable to – but not synonymous with – the ancient concept of a tyrant; initially "tyrant", like "dictator", did not carry negative connotations. A wide variety of leaders coming to power in a number of different kinds of regimes, such as military juntas, one-party states and civilian governments under a personal rule, have been described as dictators. They, in a sense, may hold left or right-wing views, or they may be apolitical.
Originally an emergency legal appointment in the Roman Republic, the term "Dictator" did not have the negative meaning it has now. A Dictator was a magistrate given sole power for a limited duration. At the end of the term, the Dictator's power was returned to normal Consular rule whereupon a dictator provided accountability, though not all dictators accepted a return to power sharing.
The term started to get its modern negative meaning with Cornelius Sulla's ascension to the dictatorship following Sulla's second civil war, making himself the first Dictator in Rome in more than a century (during which the office was ostensibly abolished) as well as de facto eliminating the time limit and need of senatorial acclamation. He avoided a major constitutional crisis by resigning the office after about one year, dying a few years later. Julius Caesar followed Sulla's example in 49 BC and in February 44 BC was proclaimed Dictator perpetuo, "Dictator in perpetuity", officially doing away with any limitations on his power, which he kept until his assassination the following month.
Following Julius' assassination, his heir Augustus was offered the title of dictator, but he declined it. Later successors also declined the title of dictator, and usage of the title soon diminished among Roman rulers.
As late as the second half of the 19th century, the term dictator had occasional positive implications. For example, when creating a provisional executive in Sicily during the Expedition of the Thousand in 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi officially assumed the title of "Dictator" (see Dictatorship of Garibaldi). Shortly afterwards, during the 1863 January Uprising in Poland, "Dictator" was also the official title of four leaders, the first being Ludwik Mierosławski.
Past that time, however, the term dictator assumed an invariably negative connotation. In popular usage, a dictatorship is often associated with brutality and oppression. As a result, it is often also used as a term of abuse against political opponents. The term has also come to be associated with megalomania. Many dictators create a cult of personality around themselves and they have also come to grant themselves increasingly grandiloquent titles and honours. For instance, Idi Amin Dada, who had been a British army lieutenant prior to Uganda's independence from Britain in October 1962, subsequently styled himself "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor[A] Idi Amin Dada, VC,[B] DSO, MC, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular". In the movie The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin satirized not only Adolf Hitler but the institution of dictatorship itself.
The association between a dictator and the military is a common one; many dictators take great pains to emphasize their connections with the military and they often wear military uniforms. In some cases, this is perfectly legitimate; Francisco Franco was a lieutenant general in the Spanish Army before he became Chief of State of Spain; Manuel Noriega was officially commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces. In other cases, the association is mere pretense.
Some dictators have been masters of crowd manipulation, such as Mussolini and Hitler. Others were more prosaic speakers, such as Stalin and Franco. Typically the dictator's people seize control of all media, censor or destroy the opposition, and give strong doses of propaganda daily, often built around a cult of personality.
Modern usage in formal titles
Because of its negative associations, modern leaders very rarely (if ever) use the term dictator in their formal titles. In the 19th century, however, its official usage was more common:
- In the former city-state of Venice, and while it was a republic resisting annexation by either the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia or the Austrian empire, a former Chief Executive (president, 23 March 1848 – 5 July 1848), Daniele Manin (b. 1804 – d. 1857), was styled Dictator 11–13 August 1848 before joining the 13 August 1848 – 7 March 1849 Triumvirate.
- The Dictatorial Government of Sicily (27 May – 4 November 1860) was a provisional executive government appointed by Giuseppe Garibaldi to rule Sicily. The government ended when Sicily's annexation into the Kingdom of Italy was ratified by plebiscite.
- Józef Chłopicki was styled Dictator from 5 December 1830 – December 1830 and again in December 1830 – 25 January 1831
- Jan Tyssowski was Dictator from 24 February 1846 – 2 March 1846.
- Ludwik Mierosławski was Dictator from 22 January 1863 – 10 March 1863
- Marian Langiewicz was Dictator from 10 March 1863 – 19 March 1863
- An Executive Dictatorial Commission of three members existed from 19 March 1863 – 20 March 1863
- Romuald Traugutt was Dictator from 17 October 1863 – 10 April 1864
- Nazarov was Dictator of the Don Republic (which before, since its founding on 2 December 1917 at Novocherkassk, had been governed by a Triumvirate including the last pre-Soviet Ataman, Aleksei Maksimovich Kaledin) from 11 February 1918 till 25 February 1918 when Bolshevik troops ended their existence
- Prince N. Tarkovsky was Dictator of the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus
Human rights abuses
Under the Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, government policy was enforced by extrajudicial killings, secret police (originally known as the Cheka) and the notorious Gulag system of concentration camps. Most Gulag inmates were not political prisoners, although significant numbers of political prisoners could be found in the camps at any one time. Data collected from Soviet archives gives the death toll from Gulags at 1,053,829. Other human rights abuses by the Soviet state included human experimentation, the use of psychiatry as a political weapon and the denial of freedoms of religion, assembly, speech and association.
Pol Pot became dictator of Cambodia in 1975. In all, an estimated 1.7 million people (out of a population of 7 million) died due to the policies of his four-year dictatorship. As a result, Pol Pot is sometimes described as "the Hitler of Cambodia" and "a genocidal tyrant".
In game theory
In social choice theory, the notion of a dictator is formally defined as a person who can achieve any feasible social outcome he/she wishes. The formal definition yields an interesting distinction between two different types of dictators.
- The strong dictator has, for any social goal he/she has in mind (e.g. raise taxes, having someone killed, etc.), a definite way of achieving that goal. This can be seen as having explicit absolute power, like Sulla.
- The weak dictator has, for any social goal he/she has in mind, and for any political scenario, a course of action that would bring about the desired goal. For the weak dictator, it is usually not enough to "give their orders", rather he/she has to manipulate the political scene appropriately. This means that the weak dictator might actually be lurking in the shadows, working within a political setup that seems to be non-dictatorial. An example of such a figure is Lorenzo the Magnificent, who controlled Renaissance Florence.
Note that these definitions disregard some alleged dictators who are not interested in the actual achieving of social goals, as much as in propaganda and controlling public opinion. Monarchs and military dictators are also excluded from these definitions, because their rule relies on the consent of other political powers (the nobility or the army).
- Dictator novel
- Authoritarian personality
- Emergency powers
- List of coups d'état and coup attempts
- List of coups d'état and coup attempts by country
- List of political leaders who held active military ranks in office
- List of political leaders who suspended the constitution
- List of longest-ruling non-royal national leaders since 1900
- Lists of state leaders by year
- Maximum Leader (disambiguation)
- Military rule (disambiguation)
- Strongman (politics)
- Supreme Leader (disambiguation)
- Benevolent dictator for life
- Benevolent dictatorship
- Mussolini and his followers consolidated their power through a series of laws that transformed the nation into a one-party dictatorship. Within five years, Mussolini had established dictatorial authority by both legal and extraordinary means and aspired to create a totalitarian state. Mussolini remained in power until he was deposed by King Victor Emmanuel III in 1943, but a few months later he became the leader of the Italian Social Republic, a German client regime in northern Italy – Mussolini held this post until his death in 1945.
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- Fritz Morstein Marx, et al. Propaganda and Dictatorship (Princeton UP, 1936). excerpt
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- "The First Philippine Republic". National Historical Commission. 7 September 2012. Retrieved 26 May 2018.
On June 20, Aguinaldo issued a decree organizing the judiciary, and on June 23, again upon Mabini’s advice, major changes were promulgated and implemented: change of government from Dictatorial to Revolutionary; change of the Executive title from Dictator to President
- Philippine Legislature:100 Years, Cesar Pobre
- Dune, Eduard Martynovich; Koenker, Diane; Smith, S. A. (April 1993). Notes of a Red Guard. Urbana Illinois, U.S.A.: University of Illinois Press. p. 101. ISBN 978-0252062773. ISBN 0252062779.
- "Gulag Prisoner Population Statistics from 1934 to 1953." Wasatch.edu. Wasatch, n.d. Web. 16 July 2016: "According to a 1993 study of Soviet archival data, a total of 1,053,829 people died in the Gulag from 1934 to 1953. However, taking into account that it was common practice to release prisoners who were either suffering from incurable diseases or on the point of death, the actual Gulag death toll was somewhat higher, amounting to 1,258,537 in 1934-53, or 1.6 million deaths during the whole period from 1929 to 1953.."
- ""Top 15 Toppled Dictators". Time. 20 October 2011. Retrieved 4 March 2017.
- William Branigin, Architect of Genocide Was Unrepentant to the End The Washington Post, April 17, 1998
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